“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” ~Sydney J. Harris
No matter what airline you fly, there are safety instructions at the start of every flight that the flight crew goes over with everyone on the plane.
The important ones are also listed out on a card or brochure located in the seat back pocket in front of you. Besides letting you know where the exits are, there is always some version of the following statement: “In the event of a change in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from the ceiling. Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.”
Many times, there’s no further explanation about this particular safety feature and procedure. I suppose that if there were, it would necessarily sound a bit dark. Something along the lines of “here’s no use you starting to help someone else, and failing, and then both of you passing out.”
The phrase “put your own oxygen mask on first” is so commonplace that people use it in other contexts. Medical personnel or counselors say it to caretakers when they mean to remind those people to take care of themselves; some bosses say it to their harried employees who are in the process of burning out.
On the one hand, it’s similar to the advice given by the Six-Fingered Man, Count Rugen, to Prince Humperdinck in the movie The Princess Bride. “Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” It is a way of advocating that the listener engage in basic self-care by maintaining their health.
On the other hand, it can sound puzzling or even contrary to what we believe. What’s so bad about putting the needs of others first? Isn’t it selfish of us to prioritize ourselves when other people need us to care for them? How can we rest when there is so much to be done?
I know I used to scoff at the idea of putting my own oxygen mask on first, but I learned the hard way to pay attention to this particular platitude.
A little more about me, so you know where I’m coming from: I have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and fibromyalgia. I came down with RA almost twenty years ago, when I was a single mom taking care of my two young daughters, working a full-time job as an attorney, taking care of my own house and yard, cooking, cleaning, and doing ALL THE THINGS.
I almost never asked for help, and on the one occasion that I asked my mom to watch the kids for a weekend just so I could get a break, she turned me down. Her message, and the one I had already internalized, was that mothers don’t get to rest.
I put my kids first, my job second, the house third, and to be honest, I am not sure I was even on the list of my top five priorities. In the end, I paid for it with my long-term health.
After my diagnosis with RA in 2002, I ended up on long-term disability (because I was fortunate to have good disability coverage at work). It’s been nearly twenty years, and I still can’t commit to a “regular job” outside my home because (a) stress causes my conditions to flare and (b) even if I can show up for a day or week, there’s no guarantee I can do it longer than that without my symptoms acting up.
The link between stress and the onset of RA is fairly well-documented, and I had stress of all sorts back then. Also, and I tell you this to make it clear: I ignored myself.
I ignored my health, my need for sleep, my mounting stress levels. To the extent that I thought of myself and my own needs, my self-talk was a nonstop negative inner critic, constantly telling me what I was doing wrong, etc. It quickly shut down any thoughts that I deserved a break or any assistance.
I was so low on my own list that I ran myself down when all the caution lights were flashing. I now have chronic health issues, and am considered immune-compromised due to the medications I take for my RA. I no longer practice law, since a full-time job or even any regular work outside my home is out of the question.
In the context of my own life, “putting my own oxygen mask on first” might have looked like asking for some help, or hiring some help. It might have looked like reducing how many hours I was working. It might have looked like me putting myself in bed at a decent hour every night instead of burning the midnight oil to do client work, sew Halloween costumes, and clean the house.
It most certainly would have looked like getting more rest. Since I did none of those things, it is little wonder that my health took a beating until I was forced to slow down and rest.
These days, I know to listen to my body when it sends out a warning. To take a rest the first time I notice things starting to act up, because if I don’t, a flare is certain to follow. I schedule recovery days for the day after travel, or the day after an infusion treatment.
Over the years, I’ve arrived at an analogy that I prefer to the oxygen mask one. It has to do with firefighters. If you like, they can be hot, hunky firefighters, although that part doesn’t really matter.
As I think about things, I picture two firefighters who go about things in very different manners.
The first of these two firefighters sees that your house is on fire, so he runs toward the house in his T-shirt and shorts. He grabs a garden hose that he sees lying nearby and has to run close to the house in order to get the water in that garden hose to reach the flames.
He is now very close to the house. If the flames explode or the wall falls down, he will be injured or killed, and others will have to rush in to rescue him.
He runs a serious risk of smoke inhalation. His garden hose might be helping, but only a little. Due to the heat, smoke, and flames, he has to back away after only a few minutes. The house continues to burn.
The second firefighter grabs her helmet and respirator. She puts on her flame-retardant suit and her boots and gloves. As a result, it takes her longer to get to the house, but she is now fully prepared to take the high-pressure hose and use it, and can hang in there and work until the flames are out.
If your house is on fire, which firefighter would you rather be? The one who rushes in without thinking or taking care of themselves, or the one who takes the time to ensure that she is protected and prepared?
Our natural instinct is to rush in and help, to do all we can right away.
But sometimes, it is better for us to take just a bit of time away from that burning house so that we can take care of ourselves and our bodies—our own equipment—so that we can hang in there and be of assistance much longer.
It is not selfish if you take time to preserve or improve your physical and mental health. Under either oxygen mask or fire fighter analogy, it’s using the proper equipment for you to be able to continue to do all the things that need to be done to take care of the others who depend on you.
Of course you want to do the best you can under whatever circumstances you face. Taking care of yourself, taking breaks, asking for help: all of those things will allow you to hang in there a bit longer, and do the job a bit better. You deserve nothing less.
About Kelly Ramsdell
Kelly Ramsdell is the founder and CEO of Actually-I-Can, Inc, which helps help people who identify as female or non-binary to reclaim and redesign their lives with aligned ease. She has written two ebooks, 12 tips to help you sleep and Lower your anxiety to help people through these trying times. Get them at actually-i-can.com, or follow on Insta or Facebook.